edited: Tuesday, December 04, 2001
By Lonna L. Williams
Posted: Tuesday, December 04, 2001
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Lonna Lisa Williams compares fighting cancer to battling a space alien from the films "Alien" and "Aliens."
I enjoy a good film, as do most Americans. One of my favorite films is a horror story. It reminds me of my fight with cancer. It’s called "Alien."
The film starts with a grim, dark, metallic setting as the camera explores a seemingly lifeless spaceship which looks like an ugly, rectangular barge. It drifts silently in space until a computer awakens its crewmembers from their frozen sleep--to answer a distress call from a nearby planet. The crew, in a small shuttle, leaves the barge and lands on the planet. An exploration team puts on spacesuits and follows the distress beacon through a stormy desert and to a gigantic crashed alien vessel.
There one of the crew, Caine, finds a cargo hold filled with egg-like things beneath a glowing green sea of mist. He parts the mist and climbs down to examine one cone-like object that opens slowly like a clam. Then something like a giant crab leaps out and attaches to his helmet, shattering the face mask and sending its tentacles down his throat and into his body.
The other team members carry his still-breathing body back to the ship. Officer-in-Charge Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to let the contaminated crewmember into the ship, but the science officer overrides her and opens the airtight door.
This is their great mistake.
Back at the mothership, the science officer and captain stretch Caine out on an exam table and discover that the alien is controlling his breathing and therefore cannot be removed. They carefully slice into one of the crab-like legs that still clings to Caine’s face. Alien blood drips acid through the spaceship's metal floors--through level after level--almost breaching the hull and entering space.
The alien suddenly releases Caine and dies. Caine awakens. The crew thinks all is well and enjoys a meal together. In the middle of the meal comes one of Hollywood’s most famous scenes--Caine gasps and contorts his face as he grips his stomach in pain. Astounded crewmembers watch as a creature’s head rips through Caine’s chest, splattering blood on them and killing Caine.
The alien's offspring scurries away and hides in the huge ship. It grows quickly, hunts down, and consumes all of the crewmembers but one. We watch through Ripley’s eyes as she, left alone in the barge with the alien, tries to outsmart it and survive.
Today, as I check on my mother-in-law, I feel like Ripley inching down metallic corridors, not knowing around which bend the alien waits.
Ruth, who is 76 years old, hasn’t been answering her phone.
She doesn’t answer the door either. I hear the T.V., her constant companion, blast from inside the apartment. I get out my key, open the door, and peer inside. Though the sun shines outside, in here everything is dusky and stale, the curtains drawn, the windows shut.
Seeing no body stretched on the floor, I step in, holding my breath. I notice the dust and dirt that have accumulated in the corners and countertops, the pile of ashes under the sofa where she sits to watch T.V., the ash tray with its half-smoked brown cigarettes, and the black round burn marks all over the carpet. I walk silently under the stare of Ruth’s handpainted artwork--a lion, a little girl, trees against mountains. Her giant horse statue regards me with unblinking eyes.
Ruth is in the bedroom, stretched out on the bed, eyes closed. Her face holds a gray pallor that shows more than old age. I hesitate a moment before trying to awaken her, wondering if she still breathes.
She takes a while to fully open her eyes. She’s wearing a blue hairnet and a frayed floral nightgown. There’s a cigarette burn on the front of the nightgown, above her left breast.
“Are you alright?” I ask.
“I have been sick,” Ruth tells me. She raises herself on one elbow and then sits up. She grabs her trashcan and spits something into it.
“I haven’t been able to pass my bowels. I haven’t eaten a real meal in a month. And I’ve had these for two or three weeks,” she says, pulling down her nightgown collar to show me a lump above her left breast. It looks like a flesh-colored golf ball sticking out of her skin.
“They’re all over my body.”
She shows me another one in her abdomen. It has red feeder veins going to it from all directions, nourishing it, making it grow.
“Here, feel it,” she commands. She grabs my hand and puts it over the scarlet lump. It feels hard and warm to my touch.
I step back and place my hand over my mouth.
It’s been five years since I battled cancer, since I found a single lump in my breast. I had surgery and chemotherapy. I knew nausea and sleepless nights. I lost all my hair. And I faced the possibility of dying and leaving my husband, three-year-old daughter, and baby boy.
I see cancer for what it is--a crab, an alien, a dragon. It has its claws deep into Ruth, and they’re sticking up from her skin for me to see.
“Why didn’t you tell me how sick you were?” I ask.
She doesn’t reply.
“I’ve got to get you to the emergency room,” I decide. Ruth’s light blue eyes look up at me, helpless and afraid. She knows what she’s got there in her body--what those lumps mean.
As I drive Ruth to the E.R., I think of "Alien." In its sequel, "Aliens," Ripley has recurring nightmares of the alien hiding inside her, feeding on her, killing her as it emerges. Sick of trying to hide from the terror, she decides to go on the offensive and becomes the hunter, returning to the breeding planet.
To rescue a little girl named Newt, Ripley arms herself with a cannon rifle, bullets, grenades, and a flamethrower. All her Marine friends have been killed or wounded. Alone, Ripley enters caves where aliens, in insect-like stages of development, feed on human hosts. She breaches the inner chamber full of alien eggs. She sets the chamber ablaze and, like a desperate mother, faces the alien queen in a life-or-death duel.
Near the film’s end, Ripley holds Newt on the edge of a metal scaffold. Explosions and debris surround them. The alien queen, furious that Ripley destroyed her eggs, advances with her horned head and pinchers waving. Ripley tells Newt, “Close your eyes, baby.” Then the rescue ship appears behind them, hovering amid the flames. Its pilot lowers the stairs, and Ripley and Newt climb to safety seconds before the planet’s surface explodes in a nuclear cloud.
That’s how I feel when I think about surviving cancer. But I’ve got to take my mother-in-law to the emergency room, and I don’t have time to fear.
Lonna Lisa Williams has a Master’s degree in English. When her husband became a full-time college English professor, she gave up teaching to stay home with her children. She lives in the California mountains where she enjoys hiking and ice skating. She is the author of a science fiction novel, "Like a Tree Planted," and a cancer survival story, "Crossing the Chemo Room." Her books are available on the Internet at http://www.booksurge.com.